Don't Let Broadband Scrooges Ruin the Gift Of Cloud Backup

It's the time of year for giving gifts. If you're the go-to techie in your family (like me), my shopping advice is this: Give some cloud this holiday season--specifically, cloud backup. It's good for you and good for the recipient. But there are challenges, largely because of the FCC's spectacularly unambitious broadband plan.

Jonathan Feldman

December 19, 2011

4 Min Read
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It's the time of year for giving gifts. If you're the go-to techie in your family (like me), my shopping advice is this: Give some cloud this holiday season--specifically, cloud backup. It's good for you and good for the recipient. But there are challenges, largely because of the FCC's spectacularly unambitious broadband plan.

Cloud backup is attractive for those of us who provide home IT support because when you've rescued mom or grandpa or even your sister--who has an MIT degree in biology but can't work a computer-- the thing that keeps you from being a total hero is the lack of data backup. You've rebuilt the machine, recovered what data you could, but inevitably, those precious photos of Junior at age 4 have been destroyed. Cloud backup completely alters that equation.

I used my immediate family as a test case for cloud backup. After a good bit of searching and chatting with other go-to geeks, I settled on CrashPlan. It supports the diversity of operating systems on my home network (Windows, Linux and Mac), and the price is right. I'm paying $12 per month. Other choices include Carbonite, Mozy, Backblaze, Jungle Disk and Norton Online Backup.

Like other cloud backup services, CrashPlan's software was simple and installation fast. I chose a user name and password and started my first backup on a variety of computers (kids, spouse and two of my own). For the privacy-minded, CrashPlan lets you set a password or passphrase-based encryption key that is different from your account login. The downside is that if you forgetit, you're on your own: CrashPlan can't recover it for you. However, it's a reasonably safe bet that the provider can't accidentally release data in the way that providers such as Dropboxhave.

After a few days with the service running, I noticed that nobody's computer was being fully backed up. That's because the laptops in our house hibernate when not in use. That means there simply wasn't enough time for our so-called broadband service to back up all the data. Theoretically, DSL-type speeds ought to be good enough to trickle the backup, but my field testing shows that this is not the case, even though I have the next-generation U-Verse service. (Though U-Verse is new and shiny, under the covers, it's just copper to the premises, ADSL or VDSL.)

Let's do the math. My effective upload, at best, was 1.1 Mbps, close to the advertised data rate. Converting the bits into bytes, this is about 140 Kbytes per second. To back up 28 Gbytes--not the largest data set that my family has--would take about 55.5 hours in a row. Assuming that the laptop is only on for eight hours a day, that's almost seven days to back up that amount of data.

And another limitation of "modern" broadband comes into play: provider throttling of large uploads and downloads. In my case, if throughput dropped to about 40 Kbytes per second (about a third of a megabit), then it would take 194.44 hours to back up that same data set. But if the laptop is on only eight hours per day, that comes to 24.3 days. A lot can happen in 24 days, including a hard drive crash.

Thankfully, CrashPlan and other providers support data shipping, the way that Amazon Web Services does. Also known as "seeded" backup, the provider sends you an external drive. You save your files and send the drive back to them. Clearly, I needed to use the seed option if I wanted the cloud to be able to contain my entire backup in a timely fashion.

Once you've established the seed backup, you likely won't have more than a gigabyte or two (the size of a purchased HD movie) as additional data. Unfortunately, that gig will take you 1.9 hours to back up at 140 Kbytes per second, and 6.9 hours if it gets throttled. You may want to leave a computer running all night now and then to extend your backup window.

As for better broadband, Craig Settles, a broadband advocate and consultant, told me that while much of the funding for broadband has gone to rural areas, "there's a case to be made for improving infrastructure in urban areas." For example, Washington, D.C., has recently announced that it will offer a municipal 100-Gbit network. And Chattanooga, Tenn., broadband service already offers gigabit connectivity to businesses and residents.

In the meantime, we go-to geeks will have to be a little bit more hands-on if we give the gift of cloud backup this year. Whatever option you choose, evaluate whether seeded backup is needed, and definitely go with a cloud backup service that has a local/LAN backup option. If you anticipate a host of new games, music, and movies getting loaded onto your home computers over the next couple of weeks, don't let a lack of backup spoil your holidays.

Disclosure: Jonathan Feldman does not have any business, consulting, or other financial relationship with CrashPlan.

About the Author(s)

Jonathan Feldman

CIO, City of Asheville, NC

Jonathan Feldman is Chief Information Officer for the City of Asheville, North Carolina, where his business background and work as an InformationWeek columnist have helped him to innovate in government through better practices in business technology, process, and human resources management. Asheville is a rapidly growing and popular city; it has been named a Fodor top travel destination, and is the site of many new breweries, including New Belgium's east coast expansion. During Jonathan's leadership, the City has been recognized nationally and internationally (including the International Economic Development Council New Media, Government Innovation Grant, and the GMIS Best Practices awards) for improving services to citizens and reducing expenses through new practices and technology.  He is active in the IT, startup and open data communities, was named a "Top 100 CIO to follow" by the Huffington Post, and is a co-author of Code For America's book, Beyond Transparency. Learn more about Jonathan at Feldman.org.

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